Red Sparrow

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#metoo?

* 1/2

Warning: Some minor spoilers, mainly about the depiction of sexual abuse, in this review.

A veneer of class – a deep bench of A-List actors, fantastic production design, elegant framing and seemingly authentic locations – manage to disguise the trashy, monumentally mis-timed Red Sparrow for about ten to fifteen minutes (basically, for the length of the elongated pre-title sequence). Then, when it becomes apparent Jennifer Lawrence’s injured Bolshoi ballerina is being sent to a school to learn how to be raped, among other fine courses offered, the reality hits you: this film is everything #metoo is against. Obviously shot before The Fall of Weinstein, it’s unimaginable that an actress of Lawrence’s calibre and clout would accept such a script now.

Her character, trained, in the Mata Hari tradition, in the art of using sex for espionage (seriously, this really is your grandfather’s sexploitation spy thriller, but with extreme violence) is not only raped, otherwise sexually assaulted, sexually exploited, beaten and ultimately tortured, she also is shown repeatedly using her “training” in a highly exploitative way. One bad choice – of scripting, direction, and performance – follows another, to create almost a parody of everything that’s wrong with the portrayal of women in films. It would be one thing if the film had a sense, like The Handmaid’s Tale or Elle, of intelligence, intellectual investigation, or even outrage, to justify its continual, almost obsessive portrayal of sexual violence, but it does not. It’s just an expensive espionage thriller that thinks it’s way cleverer than it is.

It may think it’s more classy than Atomic Blonde (2017), but it’s so not. Not only did that film empower its protagonist (Charlize Theron), it had a more intricate plot with actual ideas. Red Sparrow almost prides itself on not being an “action movie”, but it simply replaces traditional action – gunfights, fistfights, car chases – with multiple torture sequences, and, of course, the odd rape. Which would you rather watch?

Most of the distinguished cast, including Lawrence, Mathias Schoenaerts, Jeremy Irons, Charlotte Rampling, Ciarán Hinds, Joely Richardson and Douglas Hodge are lumbered with superfluous Russian accents that build, throughout the film’s long running time, from difficult to comprehend, to silly, to annoying, to blindingly stupid. Similarly, Lawrence and Joel Edgerton, playing a CIA dude (so, another accent: an Aussie playing American) seem to have been directred to speak their entire roles just above a whisper. Only Bill Camp, Sakina Jaffrey and Mary-Louise Parker, all with small roles, are allowed to speak with authentic full voices, so they may actually be heard.

Lawrence barely seems there. Maybe she realised during the shoot that this script was a turd, and phoned it in. Her blank stare dominates the movie; one could be generous and speculate that she was going for the effect of horrendous trauma, a kind of numb, lifeless PTSD. It looks only like she seriously wishes she were somewhere else. Anywhere but in this squalid, lurid, offensive mess.

mother!

**** (out of five)

Darren Aronofsky’s phantasmagoric fantasia on art, fame, success, religion, politics and the cult of celebrity erupts relentlessly and furiously. It is the angriest, most dynamic film I’ve seen this year, and probably the best film hailing from the US (although it seems to have been shot in Quebec).

A fable or parable rather than a story centred in anything close to realism, utilising horror elements including an honest-to-goodness haunted house, mother! – the lower-case “m” and the exclamation mark are specific – is a wild and mesmerising ride, and should leave most engaged viewers with plenty to chew on. It is full of ideas.

Jennifer Lawrence plays “mother”, married to “Him”, played by Javier Bardem in a role that is perfectly suited to his bulky, über-masculine and tremendously charismatic middle age. They live in his gorgeous old Victorian house in the middle of the woods; she is restoring it after it was decimated in a fire; he – a celebrated poet (!) – is trying to break a serious case of writer’s block. They have no children, and seem happy despite a certain frostiness and a rather blatant discrepancy in their power dynamic. Then, one day, completely out of the blue, a “man” (Ed Harris) knocks on the front door, and their lives start turning to shit.

Aronofsky and his cinematographer Matthew Libatique, shooting on handheld Super 16 Millimetre, have made a massive and sustained choice, which is to shoot about 85% of the film – that’s my conservative estimate – directly in front of Lawrence’s face or directly behind her head, gluing us to her and her point of view. It is effective, to be sure, but also frustrating, as her head looms so large, mostly in the centre of the frame, that it becomes irritating – you want to push it out of the way. I even wondered if the device was giving me a minor headache, combined, as it is, with a single, pretty dark location (the interiors of the old, gloomy, wooden house), a camera that literally never stops moving, and the grain of the 16mm film. This choice, and this effect, certainly were to the detriment of my enjoyment.

As for everything else, though – it’s pretty wonderful. This is delirious, obsessive auteurism at its most enabled: you’ve got budget, the world’s “biggest female star”, and the seeming complete lack of any control outside of the creator’s whims. It is a direct portal into the author’s soul – and at this level, some may be disturbed in a way that has nothing to do with any of the film’s creepy imagery or performances. The fact is that in the real world, Lawrence and Aronofsky are now in a relationship. There are twenty-two years between them, which aligns pretty well with the age gap between Lawrence and Bardem. And Aronofsky has a ten year old son from a previous relationship. All this taken together may make mother! a deeply personal movie, and the more personal it is to Aronofsky’s life and interior beliefs, the more disturbing it is. Indeed, if one was to take a particular reading of the film – and one which is certainly there to be read – one could only conclude that Aronofsky was a monster of vanity, ego and self-obsession.

I’m not sure it’s that. Knowing some of the things that have happened to Lawrence – such as naked photos of her being published without her permission – I think the director’s main target here is modern, obsessive fandom and its relationship to modern, idiotic notions of celebrity. He takes this, ties it to Jesus, throws in Cain and Abel and a bunch of other biblical stuff (he directed Noah, don’t forget, and Bardem’s character is specifically called “Him” with a capital “H”) and sprinkles our current, insane moment in political history on top. Essentially, the film is a furious attack on the world we’ve created for ourselves, and asks a pretty simple question: Why in hell would anyone want to bring a child into that?

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Hey! You can WATCH THIS review!

Joy

Jennifer-Lawrence-Joy-Movie-Poster*** (out of five)

David O. Russell’s latest end-of-year collaboration with Jennifer Lawrence feels like a project that seriously lost its way along the production line. Lawrence plays Joy, a divorced mom of two trying to keep a mad suburban (New Jersey?) household together: her ex-husband lives in the basement; her mother lives (literally) in her upstairs bedroom, addicted to soap opera; and her dad has arrived on the doorstep, hurled out by the women he left her mother for, and needs to move in. Observing all this, and providing (extremely sparse) narration is Joy’s grandma, Mimi.

Mimi is played by Diane Ladd, and that narration, Ladd’s prominent billing, and a major plot development signal that, once upon a time, the relationship between Joy and her was meant to be the dominant one in the film. But along the way Mimi got sidelined, and now barely registers, a ghost on the margins of this frenetic household. A wispy Ladd can’t hope to compete with Robert De Niro as Joy’s dad Rudy, either, but Joy and his relationship is meandering rather than dramatic. Likewise, a competitive, at times toxic relationship between Joy and her half-sister Peggy (Elisabeth Röhm, in a very strange performance) sputters and spurts. The film keeps shifting focus, or, more bluntly, keeps dropping the dramatic ball.

Joy invents a mop and gets involved with the early days of the Home Shopping Network, run by eager beaver Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper, very earnest). This happens halfway through, and for a while the movie picks up, and indeed, in one sequence that’s the equal of anything Russell (and Lawrence) has ever done, it soars. Then, like a clipped eagle, it spasmodically jerks and loses its direction again, ending in a kind of plonking mess.

Nevertheless, Lawrence makes it watchable, and often charming. She’s in every scene and, through sheer force of will and talent, she pulls you through. I feel Russell’s script wasn’t ready, and he relied on Lawrence to do what she’s done – save the movie. That’s a heavy burden and an unfair one. It’s a shame, because with her operating at this calibre, and on such an original idea, the ingredients were ripe for something truly special, rather than meandering, inconsistent and jerky. It’s worth seeing, but it’s not worth awarding.

The Cooling Flame

article-2173384-140DC805000005DC-996_634x691I saw Jessica Chastain today in Whole Foods. If not, I saw her stand-in (these are people paid to stand on a movie actor’s mark while the DP lights the setting; they are often extremely close physical types so the lighting can be as precise as possible, and they often are employed by a movie actor on movie after movie for this reason). It made me wonder what she was working on. Then I thought of how quickly these days the flame of fame can cool. It’s not just that Jennifer Lawrence is the new Jessica Chastain – it’s that Lupita Nyong’O is the new Jennifer Lawrence.091013-global-kenyan-actress-lupita-nyongo-tiff

And then I thought, what if, unlike the above-mentioned, your level of beauty steps far outside the “Hollywood” norm? I was tremendously guilty of thinking this when Gabourey Sidibe stepped out to present an Oscar this year: “Boy, you haven’t capitalised on being an Oscar nominee, have you?” The capitalisation, of course, being to lose weight.

gabourey-sidibe-2010-oscars-red-carpet-01This led me to worry about Barkhad Abdi, especially since I read in the Sydney Morning Herald that he’d been paid slave wages to appear in Captain Phillips and was now destitute and surviving on “per diems”. He was actually, in turns out, paid sixty-five thousand American dollars for his role – pretty sweet for an amateur – and personally, I would like a Hollywood Studio’s per diem. Turns out the studio was also paying for his accommodation. The Herald also reported that he was “lent a suit” but almost every actor at the Oscars has been lent a suit. You think they’re all given those Alexander McQueens, Georgio Armanis, Tom Fords and the like? Think again.maxresdefault

Luckily, the Herald redeemed itself by making me feel better about Abdi. Turns out “He has reportedly been in talks over starring in The Place That Hits the Sun, a drama about South African marathon runner Willie Mtolo, who won the New York marathon in 1992 once sanctions against South African athletes competing internationally were lifted.” If this is true, obviously this is a script that’s been kicking around, waiting for an appropriate actor. Abdi is nothing if not that actor.

But if that project pans out for Abdi, it’s very much “right place at right time”. I don’t know what the key is to capitalising on an Oscar or a Nomination, but I know one thing: do it immediately. Because the flame dies quickly. No-one at Whole Foods seemed to notice Chastain, even if it was her stand-in.